NaNoWriMo Q&A with author Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown is the author of Modern Girls. She has lived in New York, Florida, and Seattle, and now lives in Massachusetts. Jennifer has participated in NaNoWriMo multiple times, and Modern Girls started out as a NaNoWriMo project. Jennifer contributed to the NaNoWriMo blog in late September this year (“My Writerly Weakness: A Novel Not About Me”), and she has graciously agreed to answer some questions for this blog as well.

You participated in NaNoWriMo several times before producing the first draft of Modern Girls. What did you learn from each time? What did you do differently the year you started Modern Girls?

This year marks my ninth time participating since my first try in 2001, and I’ve “won” four times, though I should probably put an asterisk on that “won.” I’m a big believer in being a rebel (one who doesn’t follow the NaNoWriMo rules, though rebels are sanctioned and have their own official badge and forum on the website). Two years I worked on novels that were not brand new. In fact I wrote half of Modern Girls one year and finished it the next.

The most important thing I learned is that you have to write simply for the sake of writing, with no expectations that anyone else is going to read the work. Many people finish NaNoWriMo and think, “Wow, I have a novel! Now I’ll query agents.” No, no, no, no, no. NaNoWriMo is the start of a novel, not the finish. My first couple of novels were not-so-cleverly disguised autobiographies that were of no interest to anyone other than me, but I wanted to write them, so I did. Why write a novel no one will read? For the satisfaction of doing it and for the practice. Writing a novel is like any other skill; you need to do it over and over as you perfect your craft.

When I was ready to tackle the novel that would be Modern Girls, I already had practice writing. I was ready to move beyond my own life and tackle a subject outside of myself. I was still writing for me, in the sense that I didn’t expect anyone else to read it, but I began with a topic, put in the research time, and tried something new.

What about NaNoWriMo was most valuable to you – the community of writers, the “pep talks” from published authors, the organized time frame, something else? How was it different from just choosing any month and setting your own word count goal?

For me it’s having the time frame. Sure, I can set goals for myself, but no one bats an eye when those deadlines go whooshing by. By participating in NaNoWriMo—and telling everyone I’m participating—I’m accountable. People will ask me about my word count. Friends on Facebook will challenge me to sprints (nonstop writing for a set period of time). That status bar stares me in the face when I log onto the NaNoWriMo web site. That accountability makes me put my butt in the chair and get writing, even when the writing is rough. No one does that for me in April.

Because of the emphasis on a high word count in a short time, there isn’t a lot of time for editing during NaNoWriMo. Does that fit with your usual writing style, or was it a change for you? How did it feel to focus on writing without that internal editor?

High word count in a short time is the most beautiful writing tool ever created. Here’s the thing: I hate first drafts. Forcing those words out the first go-round is pure torture. But revising? I love revising. I will rework pages over and over until I feel they are perfect. Having a month where I’m not allowed to revise (or rather, if I do revise, I waste precious time and often end up having a negative word count as I cut words instead of adding them) forces me to get the crappy first draft down on the page. As the saying goes, “You can’t revise a blank page.” NaNoWriMo insures my pages aren’t blank and that I have something to revise come the new year.

cover image of Modern GirlsOne approach is to dive right in on November 1, but if you are writing a certain type of novel – historical fiction, say – preparation is important. How did researching in advance help you succeed during NaNoWriMo?

Had I not researched ahead of time, I couldn’t have finished Modern Girls. My entire month would have been spent looking up facts and wondering if what I wrote were even possible. The summer before NaNoWriMo I dedicated all my reading to research, from novels that were written in the 1930s to newspapers and magazines to other historical fiction novels. I learned about the Depression, New York City, socialism, reproductive rights, what was playing at the movies, the popular nail polish colors, transit schedules, and all sorts of tidbits, some of which I used in the novel and some of which will only resurface again if I enter a trivia contest.

To organize myself, I write using a program called Scrivener, which allows me to store my research. I created my document before the month started and copied notes, articles, and photos into Scrivener, so when I was writing, I could quickly flip to find what I needed. There was still a great deal I had to learn when November was done, but when I came to a fact I didn’t know, I simply wrote TK and filled in the facts later. I then rounded out the research using all sorts of methods such as museums, movies, cookbooks, oral histories, and the like.

For this year’s NaNoWriMo, my story takes place in Miami Beach from 1913 to 1926. For the past three months, my house has been filled with books about South Florida, and much of it is going in the novel, although how much will live through the revision process is anyone’s guess.

Follow-up is as important as preparation: once you’ve reached the end of the month and hit your word count goal (or not), where do you go from there?

First off, I pat myself on the back. Whether I wrote 5,000 words or 50,000 words, it’s more words than I had when I started. I hope everyone who participates in NaNoWriMo remembers that “winning” at 50,000 words is arbitrary; getting the words down on the page is what counts. The fact that you even attempted NaNoWriMo is an amazing feat, and it proves you are a writer and that you can continue on this crazy adventure of creating a novel. Everyone who wrote during the month of November is a winner, whether s/he achieved a desired word count or not.

Second, I take a break. I’ve been living the novel for a full month nonstop and perspective is needed. In December I generally don’t think about the novel.

The third step is to finish the novel. While some genres, such as middle grade and young adult, are on the shorter side, the typical adult novel has between 80,000 and 100,000 words. NaNoWriMo is only the beginning.

Finally, I revise. Revise, revise, revise. The novel is shaped in the revision process. I’m finally free to cut. I move things. I add things. Once all this is done, then it will go to my writing group and the revision process starts all over again.

Thank you, Jennifer! Readers, stay tuned for a special bonus Q&A about the author’s favorite historical novels. And NaNoWriMo participants…just two days to go!

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One Response to NaNoWriMo Q&A with author Jennifer Brown

  1. Pingback: Making the story’s world come alive | Robbins Library Blog

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